The years 1967 and 1969 were known for their festivals, but live music in the ’60s may have had no better year than 1968, when club rock hit a kind of Hall of Fame peak. The days of rubbish amps and teenybopper gaggles were in the past, and the two Fillmore venues — one on each coast — were the psychedelic Mecca and Medina of the post-pop crowd.
“Sly and the Family Stone: Live at the Fillmore East — October 4th & 5th, 1968,” a four-disc set, released last week and comprising four shows played across two nights, is sourced from New York — and, one might add, plenty of people’s wish lists, since there has been so little live Sly available over the years. And with the opening notes of “Are You Ready” — a query doubling as a warning that you are about to get seriously rocked — it’s evident that this is going to be one doozy of a box.
The first show has some technical bugs, — amps act up, microphones fluctuate — but that only serves to bolster an inchoate feel from which Stone had a knack for wringing rhythm. The second show that night is pure groove, including a version of “Dance to the Music” with a pliancy that even the well-known studio cut lacks. It’s all the more remarkable given that blues, R&B, soul jazz, hambone satire, Louis Armstrong-style vocalese, and Bachian modulations all go into the mix. That it works seamlessly is pure Sly, which is why he mattered as rock and soul’s foremost assimilator.
One highlight of the early show from the second night is a treatment of “Color Me True” with barbershop polyphonies brought to bear amid the Family’s perpetual roiling. “Do you take credit for somebody else’s cooking?” goes one refrain, inviting the response, nope, this is all you guys. The third show also features the best version of the Otis Redding-like stomper “M’Lady,” and goodness how it churns and burns. Pumping bass, full-throated horns, giant fistfuls of funky organ notes, cannonades of drums: This is just a massive sound, punctuated with unaccompanied vocals that in turn morph into wordless instruments.
Things come completely untethered at the final show, a soul-music symposium voiced by members of a band that had never been tighter as a live act. The “Turn Me Loose / I Can’t Turn You Loose” medley might as well come with an advisory to don a helmet, lest you dance too hard and jar your skull against a wall. Sister Rosie Stone, on keyboards and vocals, is a huge presence throughout, and at one point Stone pleads with the sound man to turn her up. Hers is the voice that cuts best through Stone’s slab of sound.
Stone himself is quite the sound painter on the organ. It’s something for which he’s never been given a ton of credit: That organ that manages to be both an obvious hallmark of the band at its greatest fettle and a surprise, too, when it comes washing over you.
There’s enough variety here that you understand why the whole shebang needed to come out — and vintage audiophiles will just about bow down before the quality of these tapes. Had a record label released that second show from Oct. 4 as a single LP back in its day, we’d be going on almost five decades now with a live Sly Stone album counting as as one of the best ever waxed. Good to have in the books at last.
Colin Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.